more on "Gangs of NewYork"

John M Cox coxj at
Fri Dec 20 12:26:33 MST 2002

Two somewhat conflicting appraisals of Scorcese's new film -- the first is
from today's NYTimes, and is the most favorable review I've seen yet; the
second is from the latest New Yorker, and directly takes up the question
Louis raised about Scorcese's treatment of the 1863 Draft Riots. Like
everyone else, other than professional reviewers, I haven't seen it yet -

  "Gangs of New York" is an important film as well as an
  entertaining one. With this project, Mr. Scorsese has made
  his passionate ethnographic sensibility the vehicle of an
  especially grand ambition. He wants not only to reconstruct
  the details of life in a distant era but to construct, from
  the ground up, a narrative of historical change, to explain
  how we - New Yorkers, Americans, modern folk who disdain
  hand-to-hand bloodletting and overt displays of corruption
  - got from there to here, how the ancient laws gave way to
  modern ones.

  Such an ambition is rare in American movies, and rarer
  still is the sense of tragedy and contradiction that Mr.
  Scorsese brings to his saga. There is very little in the
  history of American cinema to prepare us for the version of
  American history Mr. Scorsese presents here. It is not the
  usual triumphalist story of moral progress and
  enlightenment, but rather a blood-soaked revenger's tale,
  in which the modern world arrives in the form of a line of
  soldiers firing into a crowd.

  The director's great accomplishment, the result of three
  decades of mulling and research inspired by Herbert
  Asbury's "Gangs of New York" - a 1928 book nearly as
  legendary as the world it illuminates - has been to bring
  to life not only the texture of the past but its force and
  velocity as well. For all its meticulously imagined
  costumes and sets (for which the production designer, Dante
  Ferretti, surely deserves an Oscar), this is no costume

  It is informed not by the polite antiquarianism of Merchant
  and Ivory but by the political ardor of someone like
  Luchino Visconti, one of Mr. Scorsese's heroes. "Senso,"
  Visconti's lavish 1953 melodrama set during the Italian
  Risorgimento (and his first color film), is one of the
  touchstones of "My Voyage to Italy," Mr. Scorsese's
  fascinating, quasi-autobiographical documentary on postwar
  Italian cinema.

  Though "Gangs of New York" throws in its lot with the
  rabble rather than the aristocracy, it shares with "Senso"
  (and also with "The Leopard," Visconti's 1965 masterpiece)
  a feeling that the past, so full of ambiguity and
  complexity, of barbarism and nobility, continues to send
  its aftershocks into the present. It shows us a world on
  the brink of vanishing and manages to mourn that world
  without doubting the inevitability or the justice of its

  "America was born in the streets," the posters for "Gangs"
  proclaim. Later, Amsterdam Vallon, in the aftermath of the
  draft riots, muses that "our great city was born in blood
  and tribulation." Nobody as steeped in film history as Mr.
  Scorsese could offer such a metaphor without conjuring the
  memory of D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," and
  Griffith, along with John Ford and others, is one of the
  targets of Mr. Scorsese's revisionism.

  In Griffith's film, adapted from "The Clansman," a
  best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon, the American republic
  was reborn after Reconstruction, when the native-born
  whites of the North and South overcame their sectional
  differences in the name of racial supremacy. Ford's myth of
  American origins - which involved the subjugation of the
  frontier and the equivocal replacement of antique honor by
  modern justice - also typically took place after the Civil

  In "Gangs," which opens nationwide today, the pivotal event
  in our history is the riot that convulsed New York in July
  of 1863. While this emphasis places the immigrant urban
  working class at the center of the American story - a
  fairly radical notion in itself - the film hardly
  sentimentalizes the insurrection, which was both a revolt
  against local and federal authority and a vicious massacre
  of the black citizens of New York.

  The rioters are seen as exploited, oppressed and destined
  to be cannon fodder in a war they barely understand, but
  they are far from heroic, and the violence of the riots
  makes the film's opening gang battle seem quaint and
  decorous. What we are witnessing is the eclipse of
  warlordism and the catastrophic birth of a modern society.
  Like the old order, the new one is riven by class
  resentment, racism and political hypocrisy, attributes that
  change their form at every stage of history but that seem
  to be as embedded in human nature as the capacity for
  decency, solidarity and courage.

  This is historical filmmaking without the balm of
  right-thinking ideology, either liberal or conservative.
  Mr. Scorsese's bravery and integrity in advancing this
  vision can hardly be underestimated.

full article:

                       What's on the screen after the
                       long struggle to complete the project certainly
                       boring - some of the movie is very imposing -but
                       it's grisly and heavy-spirited. Somewhere along
                       the way, Scorsese's conception turned vague and
                       then got pickled in excessive production values.

                       For the first time, Scorsese has
                       theatricalized and formalized violence, and some
                       of us may resist being drawn into his fetishistic
                       obsessions. The endless gang war is presented as
                       a love of fighting for its own sake, acted out
                       strictly along ethnic lines. I'm no Marxist, but I
                       can't believe that such a war would be fought
                       without a material cause. Was it a battle for
                       control of the East Side docks? The whiskey
                       trade? Gambling? Distribution of matchsticks and
                       dustpans? Grounded in nothing but blood, the
                       gang war seems a mere projection of an
                       audience-pleasing device onto the past. Scorsese
                       and his writers drop Boss Tweed (Jim
                       Broadbent) and Tammany Hall corruption into the
                       action, but historical allusiveness is not the same
                       thing as historical accuracy. In all, "Gangs" is an
                       example of the fallacy of research: they got the
                       hats and knives right, but the main lines of the
                       story don't make much sense.
                       If lower-class white groups were fighting each
                       other, wasn't it likely that they wanted to avoid
                       the bottom rung of the social ladder, where
                       blacks, with no other choice, had to live? Blacks
                       are the repressed presence in this movie fantasy,
                       and the omission makes nonsense of the
                       sequences devoted to the horrific Draft Riots of
                       1863. There were populist elements in that
                       rebellion (for three hundred dollars, a young man
                       could buy his way out of conscription), and the
                       filmmakers harp on them. Fair enough. But they
                       also present the riot as an outgrowth of the Irish
                       fight against the nativists. The tone of what we
                       see is, at first, celebratory; it's a virtuous
                       revolt, the
                       Bolsheviks coming down the streetand then, as
                       Union soldiers fire on the rioters, tragic. The
                       actual rioters, however, burned down a Negro
                       orphanage and strung up black men on lampposts
                       and set them on fire (the orphanage doesn't show
                       up in the movie, the lynchings only in passing). It
                       was blacks who suffered most in this tragedy. The
                       filmmakers, hoping to memorialize the immigrant
                       Irish as the soul of a new nation, went down the
                       wrong path, then pulled back, only to end in
                       confusion, halfway excusing an awful event.

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